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Getting smarter about searching the Web

May 17, 20044 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsWeb Search

* UC Berkeley offers tutorial on mastering Web searching

When I was in college umpteen years ago, I absolutely hated projects that involved lots of research.  That meant long hours in the library, hand-transcribing notes onto index cards, and hoping that I’d found the best sources of information.  No one but I ranked the value of the information I dug up.  And of course, there was little cross-reference of information between sources.

Today, of course, the Internet has changed all that.  Just give me a few minutes with Google or Lycos and I can assemble all sorts of research information on just about any topic.  As the span of Internet content grows by millions of pages per day, search engines are the essential tools that help us find what we really need.  This is no secret – Neilsen NetRatings says that 115 million Americans, or 39% of our population, already use search engines.  (Makes you wonder – how does the other 61% locate pertinent information?)

There are lots of search engines to choose from, the most popular being Google, Yahoo, Excite, Lycos, AltaVista and Mamma (“the Mother of all search engines”).  The speed and quality of the search differs greatly among them.  And unfortunately, we’ve seen the blatant commercialization of search engines with the “sponsored links” popping up at the top of our search results.  Nevertheless, I can overlook a few paid commercials in order to get my filtered research in a timely fashion.

As the amount and variety of Web content grows, it’s important to know how to conduct an advanced search in order to return the highest quality of information and links.  The University of California at Berkeley has a great free online course for mastering the search.  The tutorial has been the most heavily used and linked tutorial on Web searching that exists anywhere in the world.  If you spend a lot of time looking for high-quality information on the Internet, UC Berkeley’s tutorial is well worth the short amount of time it takes to learn how to hone in on your desired content.

The tutorial recommends you start your search by analyzing your topic.  For example, does it have distinctive words or phrases that can narrow the search right away?  Or, are you just learning about the topic and need guidance on what to search?  A little bit of up-front analysis can save you lots of time and frustration in the search process.

Next, know where to start looking.  Possible information sources include search engines, subject directories, specialized databases, and subject matter experts.  The tutorial gives you suggestions on which of these resources to search, and when.

Additional strategies the tutorial suggests include varying your approach to searching, and abandoning a search path that’s just not fruitful.  Remember, there are many ways to arrive at the information you are seeking, so don’t be afraid to try numerous paths.

And how’s your use of Boolean logic?  I have a mathematics degree and I still have trouble with my “if this AND that but NOT this word” kind of advanced searches!  One section of the tutorial gives you invaluable tips for more effective Boolean searches.  It even gets specific about how to use Boolean terms with certain search engines.  So if you frequently use more than one search tool, it’s good to learn the subtle differences between how Google handles a complex search and how Lycos does it.

Speaking of Google, it’s getting lots of hype these days.  It’s a great tool, but according to UC Berkeley, there are others out there that might be more effective in meeting your needs.  Others that come highly recommended include Teoma and Vivisimo.

The next time you have a half hour to spare, flip over to the UC Berkeley tutorial and make yourself a little smarter about using tools to search the Web.

Linda Musthaler is vice president of Currid & Company.  You can write to her at